A Storm of Skies and Pages: “Bookgate”

Happy Friday, everyone! The day started out sunny around here but suddenly turned into torrential thunderstorms in the afternoon.

Speaking of storms, there’s a big scandal going on in the book community right now. That means, at the very least, you can count on an epic and well-written battle. The Urbana Free Library, which is a public library in Urbana, Illinois–near, but not associated with UIUC, is under massive scrutiny for their “purge” this week of thousands of nonfiction books. The criteria for purging? Anything over ten years old. As you can imagine, this lit a beacon in the minds of book fans, having been warned of such dystopian behavior in Farenheit 451 and Libyrinth.

Beacons are better than pigeons: Gondor announces war.
http://littlelotrthings.tumblr.com/page/22

The best articles I’ve found on the overall coverage of the event are by the News-Gazette and Book Riot (@BookRiot on Twitter). Smilepolitely.com has a good article on the library staff’s responses to the event.

The News-Gazette, East Central Illinois’s newspaper–and a direct competitor the UIUC newspaper I used to write for (sorry Daily Illini…I love you both…): Urbana Free Library patrons express concern over size and speed of book culling”
BookRiot, a book news source: “Bookgate: When Urbana Free Library Purged Thousands of Books”
Smilepolitely, Champaign-Urbana’s online magazine: “Miscommunication, or Mismanagement?”

In fact, the scandal has spawned a catchy hashtag for the event–and it’s trending right now in the Twittersphere: #bookgate. I suppose it makes sense that the most prolific Twitter writers would also be book fans. But it’s not just an online sensation; emergency city council meetings were held, too.

“Weeding” is a natural, necessary task–in nature and in the library. It may hurt our hearts to pull out bright dandelions (they’re flowers, too!) or irrelevant books (How to Clean Your Typewriter in Just Ten Hours), but the truth is, without maintenance, those extraneous items can choke out your lawn–or your library. New books will always be written, and space is finite–so what do you do with outdated or irrelevant materials?

One option is reselling. As a bibliophile, I enjoy visiting different bookstores and libraries. I appreciate when they try to sell old copies of books, movies, and CDs that they need to get rid of–either because they have too many copies or because people are no longer interested in the content. I usually try to visit whenever I hear my local ones are having a sale going; I have found treasures for under $1! Sometimes, I discover things I never would have found otherwise; the shelves are expansive, and I might not even have thought to look at a certain topic. In particular, I have found reference books to be a gem. OK, so a musical history book might only go till 1950–which might not be popular, but it just so happens that my interest in pop music pretty much stops at around that time period. 😉 I love filling my imaginary bookshelves of my dream library with quirky and unusual books. Lots of books, period.

“This is all you think about when you picture your dream home.” –Buzzfeed’s “25 Signs You’re Addicted to Books”

The Library Journal also lists some clever possibilities for upcycling books if truly no one wants them.

The problem for Urbana Free Library was more in the way they culled than the act of culling itself–and protesters have said as much. In my opinion, a ten-year-old book would be irrelevant if it is proven incorrect by more current research/data, but I think those types of materials are more often found in specialized university science collections, not public libraries. Biographies, typographical studies, ancient histories, and so many other topics would rarely be updated–and even if they were, someone else might still find use for the content in the older books.

The “other religions” section of the Urbana Free Library now–note almost all of the foreground is empty. Are religions really updated that often? (Image from smilepolitely.com)

What troubles me is I can’t find any information about what happened to these thousands of books except that they were “sent away”–to an incinerator? To a dump? How often is this happening, and at how many libraries? So many areas in the world could use these materials, if only to learn how to read, so I sure hope they weren’t discarded outright. I know I will be following #bookgate to see what comes of the scandal. I read that there is a possibility some boxes are still around; let’s hope so. At this time, the library director is still denying culpability and avoiding questions; the public is crying out for her replacement. On a personal level, I’m sad this has happened, because I really loved this library.

Like we learned in Farenheit 451, books are a reflection of life, culture, and humanity when they are written–and I think that goes doubly so for nonfiction. Hopefully, #bookgate has caught enough attention to be a real-life example of why this shouldn’t ever happen again.

I don’t feel like ending on a somber note on this Friday night, so here are some guinea pigs enjoying some books. –humanesociety.org

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12 thoughts on “A Storm of Skies and Pages: “Bookgate”

  1. Good blog post Amanda. I am sure that the reason for the ill planned and executed purge was some bureaucrat who thought nothing of what they were doing. To your point necessary culling must take place but arbitrary wholesale dumping of this manner is not right in my view.

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    • Thank you very much! You may be right about bureaucracy being behind some of this. I know money was, which I’ll mention below. Luckily, the mayor did order a halt to the process, but not soon enough–I’m sure the city was aware of it, but it took the citizens making an issue of it for them to take action. The library’s director definitely issued the order, and currently, her statement is that they were preparing for an expensive RFID system to take place, so they had to get rid of redundant materials so they wouldn’t have to pay staff to catalog unnecessarily. But why was it so rushed? Couldn’t you add one more criteria, like physical condition? She is adding kindling to the fire by not admitting responsibility and just citing “poor communication.” This wasn’t an overnight process–plenty of time to notice what was going on, right?
      I think that many book lovers are also good writers, and we’ve learned from literature over the years that the way to get anything done is to write about it–so I think #bookgate is catching a ton of attention, which will cause libraries to be more careful in the future.

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  2. What an eye-opening post. As the daughter of a librarian I am somewhat aware of the tough decisions faced by libraries and the people who run them. But just dumping loads of books is not okay. Downright scary IMO.

    But pictures of Oreo made my day, kept me from getting worked up about the books!

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    • I bet that was honestly fascinating to hear first-hand accounts of library dramas–I’m serious! I think it helps me to see the types of books libraries often sell. Those really do seem outdated.
      It’s just upsetting here, because 10 years is hardly old for much of anything, especially nonfiction. I think most of our most valuable books are over 10 years old. Even “outdated” ones give insight into the lives, cultures, and beliefs of the societies who read them at the time.
      I am so glad you enjoyed the pictures of Oreo! He is magical for keeping me in a good mood. ❤

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  3. A whipped up drama, but for what purpose? Surely those doing the weeding were not following usual protocol, probably accidentally. No library weeds books solely because they are 10 years old. I am pretty sure this was a misunderstanding that for some reason is being twisted into a blame game. I have heard arrangements are being made for the books to be returned to the Urbana Public Library from Better World Books.

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    • B. Youngman, thank you for your response to this blog post. I agree that the drama has become heightened, and that’s part of my fascination with #bookgate–not just what happened, but the community’s response to it, too.

      I agree that no library should weed books solely because they’re 10 years old. From all the reports I’ve read, though, including Lissak’s own quotes, this was the only communication that came from her, as the director, and this was not an instantaneous overnight process. I think the public is hungry for a more detailed account from her perspective, and I, for one, am ready to listen to it with an open mind. Her son wrote a lovely letter defending her character, which hopefully quelled the hateful fires a bit in some people’s rage against her, but I do think that she needs to issue an extended, formal response to put this to rest. “I messed up; I gave insufficient direction; we’re doing everything we can to fix this and make sure it will never happen again”–I think people want to hear her say that.

      I’m so glad some of the books will be coming back from Better World Books. From what I read, this is only a certain collection of art books, unfortunately. If I’m wrong, please do let me know–I want to have an unbiased opinion and hear all sides. I’m hoping other books were not trashed and also will be sent back.

      Thanks again for your response. I look forward to following #bookgate, and I wish the best to the future of Urbana Free Library. As I mentioned, I really love this library, so I hope it–and Lissak, for she’s done a lot of good over the years for it–can recover.

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  4. Oh the idea of such a purge is stressing me out. Especially in such black and white terms, ie anything older than a decade, rather than things that have been superseded by new findings, etc…

    M y very dear friend is actually doing a post-doctorate at the university in Urbana, I hadn’t quite twigged that it was near you!

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    • It is stressful, isn’t it? There’s a lot of debate about what was “said,” assuming individuals would use their judgement about physical condition and such–which didn’t happen, but as I said, it wasn’t an overnight ordeal and should have been supervised. What’s upsetting a lot of people, too, is that the library is supported by tax money from the residents of the area. Does it work that way in England, too? I’d imagine so, but I’m not certain. A lot of these books will need to be repurchased, unless they can be recalled from wherever they went.

      How neat! What a small world! That’s where I went to undergrad! 🙂 I loved it there. The school had phenomenal libraries, too–lots of ancient texts. What is your friend studying?

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      • She’s done her PhD over here in London so I’m not sure if she’s still studying over there or teaching or working or what!! It’s something to do with geology and fuel (I’m not a really bad friend, I just don’t quite understand!).

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      • Oh, neat! It does sound complicated, so no judgement, here. 😉 There’s a lot of that stuff in central Illinois, so I think she’s in a good place for it! My sister studied that at UIUC, too, although it was more with agriculture than geology.

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